Can Team Iowa wrestling claim its first Junior freestyle national duals title in 16 years?

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Mark Reiland has the national championship plaque hanging on a wall in the basement of his Eastern Iowa home. It will turn 16 years old this summer, and each time Reiland looks at it, he can’t help but laugh a little.

The wooden plaque is cut in the shape of the United States, with a gold stop sign award in the center, earned after Iowa won the 2005 Junior freestyle national duals. It is the only time Iowa has ever won USA Wrestling’s prestigious dual competition.

“We haven’t been that lucky since,” says Reiland, the former longtime Iowa City West wrestling coach who serves as the state chairman for Iowa USA Wrestling.

That 2005 Junior freestyle national dual team overflowed with many of the state’s best wrestlers, a lineup brimming with state champions, All-Americans, and future NCAA stars. They etched themselves into Iowa wrestling lore that summer, toppling equally-talented teams from California, Kansas, and, in the finals, New Jersey to win.

Iowa's 2005 Junior freestyle national duals team brought home Iowa's only Junior national duals championship.

All these years later, Team Iowa is seeking to replicate that performance in Tulsa this week. This year’s Junior freestyle national dual team is once again full of state champs, high-end college prospects, and many of the nation’s best competitors — guys like Drake Ayala, Nate Jesuroga, Caleb Rathjen, Ben Kueter, and so many more.

“Be awesome if this team could get it done,” says Jason Christenson, the longtime coach at Southeast Polk and Iowa USA Wrestling’s coaches director. “Been too long.”

A lot has changed in the 16 years since Iowa’s only Junior duals title.

The rules for freestyle wrestling, one of the Olympic disciplines, changed seemingly every year. As a result, the sport was nearly eliminated from the Games altogether. The state’s depth and talent ebbed and flowed, and has recently entered into a resurgence.

Iowa reached the Junior duals finals three times in the seven years following the 2005 title, in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Each time, they lost to their peers on the other side of the Mississippi River. They also took third in 2011 and fourth in 2006, 2007 and 2019. 

“There are a lot of things that go into it,” Reiland says. “It ain’t easy.”

It’s why the performance from that 2005 team remains memorable for so many. It was the perfect storm of skill, determination, grit — and, perhaps most importantly according to Reiland, luck.

An injury, a phone call … and some big wins

Iowa’s Junior national dual teams are assembled each year based on a number of different factors, such as past performances, head-to-head results, state tournament finish, athlete availability, and more. Reiland felt especially confident in that 2005 team.

Among those on the roster: Lisbon’s Ryan Morningstar, Eagle Grove’s Mark Kist, C.R.  Kennedy’s Mitch Mueller and Joey Slaton, Wilton’s Chad Beatty, Saydel’s T.J. Moen (remember that name), and many more. The team was something of a showcase of the state’s most talented wrestlers.

In all, the 19 wrestlers on that team combined to win 27 individual state titles, and 10 were Junior All-Americans later that summer. Morningstar, Kist and Mueller all won freestyle national titles.

“We always talked about putting a good team together for the duals,” Morningstar said in a 2019 interview with Trackwrestling. “We didn’t want to go down there to just get matches. It was a lot more fun when you’re competing and trying to win the thing.”

T.J. Sebolt, a four-time state champ from Centerville and 2003 Junior national champ, was supposed to be on that year’s team, but he broke his elbow in the days leading up to competition. Reiland scrambled to find a 125-pounder to fill Sebolt’s spot.

So on the morning the team left for the competition — literally, on the drive between Iowa City and Des Moines — they called Montell Marion, a two-time state champ for West Des Moines Valley who became a two-time NCAA finalist for the Hawkeyes.

“We picked him up at a gas station in Des Moines,” Reiland says. “We really didn’t have a backup plan. We probably wouldn’t have won without picking him up.”

From 2005: West Des Moines Valley's Montell Marion against Nick Moon of Knoxville.

Marion ultimately recorded some significant wins for Iowa: a 3-1 win over New Jersey’s Ross Gitomer, a Junior national finalist that summer, and a 7-6 victory over California’s Brandon Zoeteway, a reigning Junior national champ. Both ultimately helped Iowa win both duals, which led to them winning their preliminary pool.

In the championship pool, Marion also notched a pin over Mike Thorn, a greco-roman national champ. It was the second of seven-straight wins that paved the way for a 41-21 win over Minnesota in the quarterfinals.

The week was full of similar results. In the championship pool semifinals, Morningstar beat another national champ, Danny Grater, by a 10-0 technical fall at 152 to lead Iowa to a 33-28 win over Kansas. Morningstar went 10-0 and didn’t allow a single point all tournament. Slaton and Mueller also posted unblemished records.

“I built lifelong friendships, and later became teammates with several of those guys down the road,” Morningstar said. “It was a great experience, just the state of Iowa coming together.”

Iowa's Ryan Morningstar is congratulated by Hawkeyes fans as he leaves the mat after defeating Old Dominion Chris Brown in the seventh place at 165 pounds during the 2010 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Omaha.

During the week, Iowa won big over Pennsylvania’s B-team (43-19), Pennsylvania’s A-team (41-20), Nebraska (51-19), New York (47-12), North Carolina (56-5), and won close over New Jersey (32-27) and California (37-27).

In the championship dual, Iowa found itself in a rematch with the same New Jersey team, which was equally as stacked, with seven Junior All-Americans, including Gitomer, Mike Grey (now the head coach at Cornell), Darrion Caldwell (a 2009 NCAA champ) and David Zabriskie (a 2010 NCAA champ for Iowa State), among others.

A pair of technical falls and a 7-5 revenge win from Gitomer over Marion gave New Jersey a 13-9 lead. Iowa then rattled off five-straight wins, none bigger than T.J. Moen’s 11-9 overtime win over Caldwell at 140 pounds.

Moen trailed 8-0 after the first period but rallied to force overtime thanks to a 3-point exposure on the edge at the gun. Then he scored two more points in sudden victory to win it outright. Ballweg and Morningstar followed with technical fall victories to give Iowa a 28-16 lead.

They would not trail again, winning the dual 35-29.

“I look at the bench and coaches and everybody is hyped,” Moen says now. “It was crazy. I won’t forget it. That was fun. Good times and memories.”

Saydel High School graduate T.J. Moen helped Campbellsville University post its fifth-consecutive top 10 finish at the NAIA Wrestling Championships. Moen is an assistant coach for the Tigers.

‘How cool would it be to win a national title for Iowa?’

Iowa’s sent talented teams to the Junior national duals over the years.

The 2008 team featured Joe Colon, Matt McDonough, Dylan Carew and Derek St. John, but finished second behind Illinois.

The 2010 team, with Cory Clark, Jack Hathaway, Cody Caldwell, Nick Moore, plus Gabe and Mike Moreno, also reached the finals, but also lost to Illinois.

Then in 2012, with Clark, Jake Marlin, Alex Meyer, Marcus Harrington and Willie Miklus, again made the finals, but again lost to Illinois. Those second-place plaques all currently reside in the Southeast Polk wrestling room (Reiland didn’t want them, so Christenson took them home).

“There’s some luck to it,” Reiland says. “Especially when kids are coming from all over (the state). They need to be in shape, down to weight, healthy.”

This year’s team is as good a team that Iowa’s sent to the Junior freestyle national duals. Consider some of the names on the roster Iowa is expected to field when the freestyle competition begins Friday morning:

  • Southeast Polk's Nate Jesuroga, a state champ and 2021 Cadet world team member;
  • Fort Dodge's Drake Ayala, a three-time state champ and two-time national champ;
  • Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen, a two-time state champ and Cadet national finalist;
  • Waverly-Shell Rock's Aiden Riggins, a state champ and Cadet world team trials finalist;
  • Iowa City High's Ben Kueter, a two-time state champ and folkstyle national champ;
  • Bettendorf's Bradley Hill, a state champ and Cadet world team trials finalist;

… as well as a slew of other state champs and All-Americans in the lineup, like Hempstead’s Chad Bellis, Waverly-Shell Rock’s Ryder Block, Southeast Polk’s Joel Jesuroga, Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Jack Gaukel, West Delaware’s Wyatt Voelker, Osage’s Spencer Mooberry and more.

This team will be another showcase of the state’s most talented wrestlers — and it came together, in part, because of Rathjen’s persistence.

Ankeny's Caleb Rathjen, red, takes a shot against Iowa City West's Hunter Garvin at the Iowa USA Wrestling Junior freestyle state championships on Saturday at Southeast Polk. Rathjen won the match, 6-6 on criteria, to win a state title at 145 pounds.

Since making the 2012 finals, Iowa hasn’t finished better than fourth at the Junior freestyle national duals (2019). Rathjen has watched the state’s depth and talent grow in recent years. He and many of his Junior dual teammates were either very young or not even born yet the last time Iowa won the Junior national duals.

It is not uncommon for seniors to sometimes bypass the usual summer wrestling schedule in order to prepare for any future college wrestling plans. But Rathjen, a future Hawkeye wrestler, dreamed bigger, and convinced many of his teammates this week to do the same.

“I was just thinking about how good our team could be,” Rathjen says, “and how cool it would be to win a national title for Iowa.”

Iowa will be tested by numerous states. Oklahoma, champions back in 2019, return with tons of Division I talent. Illinois, the three-time defending greco national duals champs, will feature plenty of national-caliber competitors. California, Minnesota and others brought star-studded lineup.

It will not be easy, of course, but this is perhaps the best Junior freestyle team Iowa’s sent to the national duals in nearly a decade. And this week, they’ll attempt to do something that hasn’t been done in 16 years.

“Duals are more fun than (the national championships),” Reiland says. “You’ve got everybody involved and everybody is important. Everybody is on the same team.

“That year, it was a lot of fun. It just all came together.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.